Australia’s prime minister says Facebook is back at the negotiating table after the tech giant this week blocked news on its site in the country.
However, despite Scott Morrison saying Facebook has “tentatively friended us again”, the company has publicly indicated no change in its opposition to the proposed law requiring social media platforms to pay for links to news content.
Senior Facebook Asia-Pacific executive Simon Milner was on Friday forced to apologise after the company banned access to accounts run by government bodies and state health departments.
Morrison on Saturday said he welcomed Milner’s apology, adding that Facebook’s closure of the public information accounts was indefensible.
“My job now is to ensure we get on with those discussions, that we bring them to a successful conclusion,” Morrison told reporters. “The Australian government’s position is very clear, people would know the strong support being provided internationally for Australia’s position.
“I’m pleased Facebook has decided, it would seem, to tentatively friend us again and get those discussions going again … to ensure that the protections we want to put in place to ensure we have a free and democratic society that is supported by an open news media can continue.”
Facebook initially claimed it had no choice but to shut health and emergency services pages down, arguing the media bargaining code was poorly worded. But it later pledged to reverse bans on pages inadvertently impacted.
The Australian treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, said on Friday he remained determined to convince Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to accept the media bargaining code. The pair spoke on Friday morning and will talk again over the weekend.
The US social media behemoth first threatened to ban news for Australians in August and repeated the ultimatum before a Senate inquiry in January.
The ban restricts Australian users and publishers from viewing or sharing news, and overseas users will be unable to access Australian news.
“This is very much about Australia’s sovereignty, this is about Australia making laws for Australians, this is very much about the rules of the internet and the digital world replicating the rules of the physical world,” Frydenberg said.
Morrison said the leaders of India, Canada and the United Kingdom were keenly watching Facebook’s reaction to the media code.
The Canadian heritage minister, Steven Guilbeault, said on Thursday his country would adopt the Australian approach as it crafts its own legislation in coming months.
The Australian law, which would force Facebook and Google to reach commercial deals with Australian publishers or face compulsory arbitration, has cleared the lower house of parliament and is expected to be passed by the Senate within the next week, despite Labor criticising the government for its handling of negotiations with digital platforms.
The Australian opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, said Facebook needed to accept that media companies should be paid for content to keep journalism alive, and said the company’s ban on news content would damage their reputation.
At a parliamentary inquiry hearing on Friday, both News Corp executive chair Michael Miller and Nine chief executive Hugh Marks called on the government to stick to its plan to legislate the media bargaining code.
Miller said the full impact of Facebook’s bans was yet to be understood.
The US State Department said on Saturday that it considered Australia’s dispute with Facebook a private business matter for the two parties.
Google, which has initially threatened to close its search engine in Australia, has announced a host of preemptive licensing deals over the past week, including a global agreement with News Corp.
Facebook’s move had an immediate impact on traffic to Australian new sites, according to early data from New York-based analytics firm Chartbeat.
Total traffic to the Australian news sites from various platforms fell from the day before the ban by around 13% within the country.